The Big C: Cancer–The Disease in a Nutshell

Cancer is arguably the most feared disease in the Western world.  In America, cancer is the leading cause of death of people between 35-65 years of age.  Nearly 1 in 7 deaths worldwide in 2007 was due to cancer.  Cancer rates are exploding throughout the world as developing nations industrialize and eat diets that are less nutritious (think of pollution and McDonald’s).  Because of physiological and social reasons, gynecological cancers are some of the most lethal types of cancer in women.  To better understand gynecological cancers, let’s take a step back and get to grips with the basics of cancer.

Cancer is a disease affecting humans, and other animals, that is a result of abnormal cells growing out of control.  Cancer can happen in virtually any part of the body and there are more than 100 distinct types.  The cells in our bodies are continually regenerating.  There is a saying that our bodies completely regenerate every seven years.  (In fact, each type of cell–each part of the body– regenerates at a different pace.)  When our bodies dictate the script (DNA being the script) that causes cell reproduction, occasionally there is a typo.  Many different things (such as smoking) can cause a “typo.”  When this happens, the body has difficulty righting the mistake and it can grow out of control resulting in cancer as seen in this illustration:

The top half of the illustration is a process called apoptosis, by which a damaged cell is removed through programmed cell death.  (I jokingly think of apoptosis as telling a “bad cell” to “pop off.”)  A lack of apoptosis is when the damaged cells are not programmed out.  This is where cancer begins.

If this growth of abnormal cells is caught in an early stage, it usually can be treated easily by removing the growth.*  Stages are a means by which the cancerous growths can be classified by how far along it has progressed.  There are four main stages, and with specific types of cancers there are further subdivisions such as “Stage II-C.”  Usually by the time a cancerous growth has reached the fourth, most advanced stage it has undergone a process called metastasis.

Metastasis is when the cancer spreads from its primary site to other sites.  So, if you hear an official cancer diagnosis, it may sound something like, “metastatic breast cancer” or “metastatic cancer primary to the liver.”  This indicates where the cancer began and that it is present in other locations.  Metastasis usually occurs through the body’s lymphatic system.  That’s why one often hears about lymph nodes in relation to cancer.

There are innumerable ways in which cancer is diagnosed.  Once it is found and diagnosed, there is a great divergence between how cancer behaves and how it is best treated depending on the type of cancer, medical history, and other factors.  If you ever find yourself receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to create a very specific plan with your physicians–no two diagnoses are ever exactly identical.  Hopefully this brief overview of the Big C helps build your understanding of the disease if you ever find yourself in close contact with cancer.

*(In my case, I had a very slow-growing cancer.  So, even though it was not caught at all “early,” it was still in an early stage.)

Is Milk Really That Good for You?

After recently spending four days in Cleveland at a bioethics conference I came away with several new, and renewed, perspectives on women’s health issues.  The first that comes to mind is something that my roommate, another bioethics graduate student, and I discussed.  That is early menarche in females.

Now, a little personal background:  I was one of the last girls my age at school to begin menstruating.  I was 11 years and 10.5 months old.  Virtually all of my friends started menstruating at 10 years of age, some at 9, and a few at 11.  I really can only think of one friend who began menstruating after me (12 years old).  To men or other folks reading who wonder:  yes, many women really do talk to each other about such things.

Scientists have not conducted any truly conclusive or in-depth studies to determine why women are experiencing puberty (not only menstruation) earlier and earlier. There are several theories, the most supported being that modern food supplies are riddled with steroid hormones.  Most research that has been done along these lines ignores the effects of hormone-filled foods on early onset puberty.  Instead, the research has focused on the effects of these foods on the incidence of cancer:  breast and prostate especially.

A scientist at Harvard has conducted some rather interesting research in this area.  She found that the amounts of hormones in Mongolian milk are tiny compared to those found in Japan.  Mongolians utilize a more traditional mode of milking cows:  milking them only when they are not pregnant or at least only during the early months of pregnancy, which is about five months of the year.  In more developed nations, cows are milked around the calendar and encouraged to bear as many calves as possible, thus increasing the amount of estrogen found in dairy products 33-fold.  It is fairly well established that the greater one’s exposure to estrogen (and other hormones) the higher one’s risk becomes of developing cancer.  That can be the topic of another post another day.

Another source of such extraneous steroid hormones in our diets comes from our meat supply.  It is illegal in the United States to inject poultry and hogs with hormones.  Beef and lamb, however, are treated with hormones.  (Poultry is commonly treated with antibiotics but this rarely poses a threat to gynecological health.)  Scientists say, however, that because the hormones in our meat supply are often artificially derived (such as zeranol, trenbolone acetate, and melengestrol acetate) they do not wreak as much havoc on the human body as the natural hormones produced in cow’s milk.

So, is milk really that good for you?  I lean towards not as good.  However, I will still be eating my bowl of cereal every morning with a heaping serving of 2% milk.  Oh, incidentally, the above-mentioned Harvard scientist found that skim milk has much lower amounts of hormones similar to the milk in Mongolia.  In any event, this topic definitely warrants deeper investigation and my unprofessional opinion is that parents out not allow their children, particularly daughters, to drink milk unless it is skim until after menarche.  Questions?  Comments?  Let ‘er rip!